March 8, 2007
Making sense of today’s Jewish Germany
(Page 2 - Previous Page)As was the case with so many immigrants, super-American patriotism was the order of the day -- especially during those early years, which were also war years.
It's in the minds of these thoughtful and well-meaning young German scholars and curators that the Heimat and Exil terminology appears to be so essential -- something they need to believe about us, as they try to have us re-enter their history as something more than just victims. (By the way, the German word for "victim," opfer, is the same as the word for "sacrifice" -- which makes it a bit spooky to sit in shul when there is a German reading of the Torah -- especially the parts about the ancient Temple service.)
I'm not worried about these many bits and pieces of a puzzle that one can never seem to assemble properly. Rather, I am constantly filled with wonder at all the ironies and disconnects, like the ones I discovered during a recent visit in Munich. I was invited to speak at the Haus der Kunst -- the massive exhibition palace that Hitler built in 1937 for the display of "proper German" art -- on the famous program of contemporary art exhibitions at New York's Jewish Museum in the 1960s.
This program was in connection with two exhibitions -- an extraordinary display of black paintings by Rothko, Rauschenberg, Stella, and Reinhardt, and an Allan Kaprow retrospective -- the late "father of 'happenings'."
This visit also provided me with an opportunity to see the impressive new Munich synagogue that opened last Nov. 9 (Kristallnacht anniversary), as well as the partially opened new Jewish community center and the Jewish Museum, opening next March. It's a stunning array of new construction, grouped around a plaza near St. Jakobs Platz (appropriately just called "Jacobsplatz").
The synagogue, designed by German architects Wolfgang Lorch and Rena Wandel-Hoefer, is a powerfully effective building, with an exterior that combines the massiveness of a heavy stone base (meant to suggest the temple -- permanence) with a floating glass upper section (meant to suggest the Tabernacle -- wandering). The simple interior is elegant, luminous and inspiring.
Appropriately, the adjacent community center building makes less of an architectural statement, but includes a variety of beautiful and utilitarian spaces. I was especially impressed by the subtle ways in which security issues are handled so that, unlike most such places, the complex neither looks nor feels like an armed camp.
When the Munich Jewish Museum opens next spring, it will serve as a challenging counterpoint to the Berlin Jewish museums -- entry to each of which suggests storming Fort Knox. In contrast to the nearby synagogue, with its solid Western Wall-like base, the simple four-story museum is totally glazed at ground level, with three floors of entirely neutral black-box gallery spaces. Without the usual architectural ego displays that compromise most museums' utility (Libeskind's notable Berlin building is a prime example), this promises to be an exciting adventure that will significantly add to Munich's already rich museum amenities.
With its fewer than 9,000 Jews, Munich is the home to my favorite index of Jewish life in Germany: Literaturhandlung -- a bookstore and sort of intellectual salon run by the dynamic Rachel Salamander, one of the most interesting forces among today's German Jewry. Just perusing the vast array of books on Jewish topics -- a surprisingly large number of them originally published in German -- impresses the visitor with the extent of interest in all things Jewish.
This isn't just the place to learn about German Jewish history or find the latest Philip Roth novel in its German translation. The number of serious Jewish works written by German scholars -- on literature, sociology, history, and even traditional texts -- is staggering, since they clearly are not aimed only at a Jewish audience. It's yet another contemporary oddity that brings one ever farther away from making sense of whatever it is that's going on in today's Jewish Germany.
Don't even try!
Tom Freudenheim is a retired museum director who writes about art and cultural issues.
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